Saturday, August 2, 2008

Welcome (back) to 'The Jungle'

We have been following the Postville, IA raid on Agriprocessors, Inc literally since the day it happened, and have been dismayed at the way the whole sorry spectacle has played out. Especially surreal has been the draconian way the workers have been treated, contrasted with the fact that the employers are not only still free, but the business is still operating.

We are not alone in our dismay. The New York Times editorial board is equally dismayed, albeit late to the party by our standards.

The conditions at the Agriprocessors plant cry out for the cautious and deliberative application of justice.

In May, the government swoops in and arrests ... the workers, hundreds of them, for having false identity papers. The raid’s catch is so huge that the detainees are bused from little Postville to the National Cattle Congress fairgrounds in Waterloo. The defendants, mostly immigrants from Guatemala, are not charged with the usual administrative violations, but with “aggravated identity theft,” a serious crime.

They are offered a deal: They can admit their guilt to lesser charges, waive their rights, including the right to a hearing before an immigration judge, spend five months in prison, then be deported. Or, they can spend six months or more in jail without bail while awaiting a trial date, face a minimum two-year prison sentence and be deported anyway.

Nearly 300 people agree to the five months, after being hustled through mass hearings, with one lawyer for 17 people, each having about 30 minutes of consultation per client. The plea deal is a brutal legal vise, but the immigrants accept it as the quickest way back to their spouses and children, hundreds of whom are cowering in a Catholic church, afraid to leave and not knowing how they will survive. The workers are scattered to federal lockups around the country. Many families still do not know where they are. The plant’s owners walk freely.

This is law enforcement run amok. As Julia Preston reported in The Times, the once-silent workers of Agriprocessors now tell of a host of abusive practices, of rampant injuries and of exhausted children as young as 13 wielding knives on the killing floor. A young man said in an affidavit that he started at 16, in 17-hour shifts, six days a week. “I was very sad, and I felt like I was a slave.”

The defendants are also victims, but instead of receiving any sort of merciful treatment, they have been branded as predatory felons, the sort of people who steal identities and empty bank accounts, but nothing could be further from the truth. “Most of the clients we interviewed did not even know what a Social Security number was or what purpose it served,” said Erik Camayd-Freixas, a Spanish-language interpreter for many of the workers. “This worker simply had the papers filled out for him at the plant, since he could not read or write Spanish, let alone English.”

The heavy-handed prosecution of the workers at Agriprocessors is a 180-degree pivot for the bu$h administration, which had for years insisted that immigration needed to be fixed comprehensively, or not at all.

Before Postville, the one redeeming quality of this bunch of crooks had been a compassion for exploited workers, but all pretense of mercy and proportionality have been abandoned as they have gone after the workers with zeal and fervor, exaggerating the threat of the workers to society at large, while predatory employers who prey on the weak, the poor and the desperate remain free.

In the move to make undocumented workers by definition a criminal class, the government overstates the threat posed by those workers. They do this to justify the rabid pursuit of employees, while glossing over the crimes of the treasonous employers who are engaged in economic warfare against the United States.

It is more than a fraudulent exercise. It is a national disgrace.

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